‘A Lonely Coast’ by Annie Proulx

As with Heidi James, there was no way I could do this list without Annie Proulx, who’s not only a wonderful novelist but one of the modern masters of the short form. I couldn’t find the story I was looking for and didn’t have time to reread four books in their entirety to track it down, so in the end I flipped open a book at a random story, scanned the opening paragraph and decided immediately to go with this one. It’s worth quoting at length: 

You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains? Nothing but blackness and your headlights cutting a little wedge in it, could be the middle of the ocean for all you can see. And in that big dark a crown of flame the size of your thumbnail trembles. You’ll drive for an hour seeing it until it burns out or you do, until you pull off the road to close your eyes or look up at the sky punched with bullet holes. And you might think of the people in the burning house, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don’t give a damn. They’re too far away, like everything else.

It’s breathtaking stuff, but of course, that’s just standard from Proulx. As with most of her work this is earthy, down-at-heel, coarse and violent, full of characters living tough lives in the rural outlands. She’s a master of style, and voice, her prose is dazzling and like all the best writers she has the most wonderful ear for the patterns and rhythms of vernacular speech. “I’m so hungry I could eat a rancher’s unwiped ass.” “You want some buffalo wings? I said. “Practically the same thing.” The feel for the country and the people she writes about across the three volumes of Wyoming Stories is on a par with Faulkner for me, and it’s hard to pay her a higher compliment than that. 

First published in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Scribner, 1999

‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx

Okay, this is not a recent discovery. I read it at least once a year, for its technical deftness and the gut punch of its emotions. Sometimes I write the first line of each section on a piece of paper, trying to figure out how Proulx managed to string the decades together with such ease. The balance of scene and summary is perfect. There’s a bit where she describes how the bodies of Ennis and Jack have changed over the years – broken noses healed crooked, teeth filed down, moustaches grown, accents shifting. And it’s just so moving. I think it was the first story that ever made me cry. There’s something devastating about the clash between the lovers’ wordless feelings and so-called traditional wisdom – “If you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”

First published in The New Yorker, October, 1997. Collected in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Harper Perennial, 1999

‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx

I include this for its confidence and scale. I re-visit this story often – to see the way that Proulx crafts the final detail of the men’s shirts interlaced one against the other, the passage of time, the masculinity. I saw the film before I read the story and find I cry throughout both. The intensity of the desire and the repression. I always loved Heath Ledger and admired his courage in taking this role that he said terrified him. Proulx squeezes the maximum out of this story of impossible love over 20 years. Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are indelible figures set against a raw rural working world – from the first encounter in the tent, to Del Mar’s vomiting, to the sex scene in the hotel: “The room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey, of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheap soap.” A story of men and class and desire and love. Devastating at its core with Del Mar’s inability to create a different life for them. Unrelentingly heartbreaking and unrelentingly real. “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

First published in The New Yorker, October, 1997. Collected in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Harper Perennial, 1999